Retro Game Guy

It's the 1980's again!


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For the love of the Atari 2600…

2015 has been a crazy busy year for me, so I haven’t had much time to keep up with this blog.  It looks like things are going to slow down a little, so I hope I can post at least every couple of weeks.

When I decided to get back into gaming, I studied which system to buy and decided on the Atari 7800.  It was backwards compatible with the 2600 and 7800 games had near arcade quality graphics.   There was also a small, but active development community ensuring a steady supply of new games to come.

When I attended to Portland Retro Game Expo a couple of years ago, I was expecting to see all kinds of 7800 games, controllers, and systems.  To my surprise, there were hardly any, except for the AtariAge booth.  The dominant game system of the show was the NES, but the Atari 2600 was a close second

I didn’t really think about it at the time, but I have many times since.  Why was the 2600 the most popular Atari 8-bit game system?  The 5200 was short lived, had a small game library (constantly expanding now as 8-bit computer titles are converted), and controllers that broke easily.  The 7800 had a poor controller, but a 2600 controller could be used to play games that only require a single button and it really does have great graphics (for an 8-bit system).   I could see why 5200 wasn’t the top Atari system, but why the 2600?

Sheer numbers…

Over 30 million Atari 2600 game systems were sold from 1977 to 1992 and over 500 games have been developed for the 2600.  Let’s face it, anyone that grew up in the 80’s either had an Atari 2600 or knew someone who did.  So many classic games have been ported to the 2600 such as Berzerk, Missile Command, Space Invaders as well as original games like Kaboom, Pitfall, and Yars Revenge.  Combined with a still active homebrew community that cranks out several new games each year, the 2600 has continued to thrive.

New developments…

New circuit boards for carts and tools for development such as emulators and todays laptops and PC’s have allowed developers to do things that were not possible in the 80’s.  One of the 2600’s most recent releases ‘Space Rocks’ uses the ARM CPU on the ‘Melody Board’ to run code written in C.  The Atari CPU is used to ‘paint the screen’.  This has allowed for near arcade quality (80’s) games to be developed for the 2600.

Simplicity…

The other thing that the 2600 has going for it is simplicity.  2600 controllers only have one button and the unit only has six switches.  Most games are intuitive and can be played without even consulting the manual.  At the same time, there are some fairly complicated games like Solaris that can keep you playing for hours!

With all of this, it is no wonder that the 2600 remains the most popular Atari game system…

@Atarigameguy

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Caverns of Mars…

Caverns of Mars is a fairly unique gem in the Atari game library.  It was developed in 1981 by Greg Christensen for the Atari 8-bit computer line.  Greg was a high school senior when he wrote Caverns and sent it to the Atari Program Exchange (APX).  APX was a division of Atari that was set up to sell programs developed by others for Atari’s 8-bit line.  Caverns won the 1981 APX game contest and was released by Atari in cartridge, cassette, and floppy disk formats.

Caverns is similar to Scramble, except the action is vertical, rather than horizontal.  The idea of the game is that Martians are surrounding Terra IV (your planet) and you must defeat the Martian forces by sabotaging their defense system.  The goal of Caverns is to guide your ship to the bottom of the cavern, while avoiding enemy fire and laser gates.   There are four types of enemies that you can shoot to gain points:  transmitters, creon rockets, pyxias rockets, and space mines.  You can also shoot fuel tanks, which will give you additional fuel.  If you are good enough to navigate your way to the bottom of the cavern, you must land on the fusion bomb, activate it, and escape from the cave before it explodes!

5200 version…

The Atari 5200’s design is similar to an Atari 8-bit computer, except that its memory is limited and some memory locations are mapped in different locations.  Thus, it has been possible to port over a number of 8- bit games to the 5200.  Steven Tucker has developed a multi-cart for the 5200 and he has also ported over a number of 8-bit games, including Caverns of Mars.

The 5200 version is available to be played in Steven’s multi-cart or may be purchased in cartridge format.  Caverns plays well on the 5200 and control on a standard 5200 joystick is not too bad.  Although not as easy to control as a digital joystick, after some practice, Caverns is fun to play.  If you are a fan of Scramble or like space themed games, you will enjoy Caverns on the 5200.

Caverns of Mars for the Atari 8-bit/5200

Caverns of Mars for the Atari 8-bit/5200

Flashback 2 version…

Caverns of Mars was included as one of the forty-two games on the Atari Flashback 2.  This version was probably a prototype that Atari developed for the 2600, but never released as there is no credit to any programmer in the Flashback 2 manual.  Although the graphics are simplified and there is quite a bit of flicker, Caverns is fun to play on the Flashback 2.  In fact, the rapid fire capability in this version, makes the game a little easier to play and, thus, a little less frustrating for beginners.

2600 version…

In 2006, John Champeau, released a 2600 version of Caverns which he titled ‘Conquest of Mars’.  This is an excellent port featuring improved graphics over the Flashback version and little to no flicker.  While the graphics overall are not quite as good as the original 8-bit version, they are very well done for a 2600 game.  The gameplay is also intact and had this been released by Atari back in the 80’s, it would have been a monster hit for the 2600.  John keeps the laser torpedo fire rate similar to the original 8-bit version, so his Caverns is more challenging to play than the Flashback version.  On the other hand, control with a standard Atari joystick, is much better than with the 5200’s analog version.

Conquest of Mars for the Atari 2600/7800

Conquest of Mars for the Atari 2600/7800

7800 version…

Sadly, no 7800 version of Caverns has been developed, but John’s 2600 version plays perfectly on the 7800.  With recent advances in cart boards for the 7800, maybe someone will develop a 7800 version that will be able to improve on the original.

Overall thoughts…

Conquest of Mars is an outstanding game that can be played on Atari’s entire 8-bit line of computers and game systems.  It may take a little searching to find a copy of the computer version, but the 2600 and 5200 versions are readily available and, at about $30 a copy, are, relatively, affordable.  As mentioned above, anyone who likes Scramble, Super Cobra, or space themed games, will love Caverns.  All of the versions of Caverns are fun to play and worth having in your collection!

@Atarigameguy